Pandemic pivot for opera

5 May 2020

The West Australian Opera has been one of the state’s first arts organisations to adapt their content during the COVID 19 crisis. Rosalind Appleby talks to music director Chris van Tuinen about how the organisation is faring.

WA Opera’s 2020 season was the first curated by music director Chris van Tuinen, who was appointed in 2019, and already half the season has been cancelled. Van Tuinen watched his hard work disappear almost overnight due to COVID-19 restrictions, but that is not his greatest disappointment.

Listen to the interview with Chris van Tuinen

“My biggest grief is not seeing the artists’ work, and not being in the room with them,” said van Tuinen over the phone while working from home.

The March premiere of Tim Finn’s Star Navigator was cancelled, plus performances of Elijah, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, regional performances and workshops. The opera company’s activities are likely to be impacted well into 2021 and 2022. Their mainstage performances – planned several years in advance – are typically given to crowds of more than 1000 at His Majesty’s Theatre, which is closed indefinitely.

However, the company has quickly adapted to the new normal, producing a range of highly sought-after digital content, something van Tuinen puts down to the extraordinary efforts of WAO staff and artists.

“People have dealt with uncertainty in the most extraordinary way and come up with the most incredible creative solutions,” he said.

Chris van Tuinen conducts Opera in the Park in February, WAO’s last performance.

Opera goes online

The first project to launch was the Ghost Light Opera series, based on the tradition of leaving a ghost light on in the theatre when it is not being used. Every Saturday night since March the company has released footage of singers such as Paul O’Neill, Emma Matthews, Fiona Campbell and James Clayton accompanied by Tommaso Pollio, filmed onstage at His Majesty’s Theatre.

Van Tuinen remembers the flurry of activity the evening before Western Australia went into lockdown.

“We are lucky enough that we have some of the world’s greatest singers living here in Perth, and we had planned on doing a recording… but on Sunday night the state government announced there would be a shutdown from midday the next day. There was a series of fairly urgent phone calls, and we got onto the stage at His Majesty’s just prior to the shutdown and managed to record all the arias and duets that people are seeing at the moment.

“That couldn’t have happened without the incredible skill and expertise of the people we are working with at the opera company. We recorded them all in three hours, and some of them are just single takes.”

Emma Matthews onstage at his Majesty’s Theatre with Tommaso Pollio hours before WA went into shutdown.

The second adaptation was the transfer of WA Opera’s adult singing classes to an online platform. Unexpectedly, the transition to a new medium resulted in a huge increase in numbers; traditionally 50-60 people attended the weeknight class at His Majesty’s Theatre, but more than 1600 people from around the world have signed up to the digital classes. A new class called Singing for Children has also been added, plus a Playlist Series, where a company member, artist or special guest compiles a playlist of their choice.

The monthly WAO Podcast Series is an initiative launched in April, a series of monthly interviews hosted by the versatile van Tuinen. He shines the spotlight on special guests discussing all things opera, from behind-the-scenes moments to meet-the-artists. The May edition of the podcast will be released on the 14th May and features WAO young artists Chelsea Kluga and Brianna Louwen alongside Helen Carroll from Wesfarmers Arts. A second podcast series called Lullabies for Babies will launch on the 18th May, produced by Emma Pettemerides and Matt Reuben James Ward who will present 30 minutes of lullabies and storytelling perfect for little ones.

Pandemic Opera

WAO’s cancelled performance of Elijah would have been performed this weekend, May 8-10.

The digital classes and YouTube arias are keeping audiences engaged and artists busy, but the big question is whether the form of opera itself can be adapted to social distancing parameters.

Van Tuinen suggests it can. In fact the pandemic has given permission for a new kind of creativity.

“We’re working on a series of live opera moments which I won’t announce just yet. But we’ve got a few things we will be rolling out which I guess you could call COVID-19 operas, or operas in shutdown; found spaces, lost operas.”

He describes an opera set in a train station in Los Angeles where the audience wore headphones and discovered the opera as they walked through the concourse.

“One of the things I’m thinking about is, if you need to socially distance audiences, how do you connect them through sound? There are lots of people doing site specific work and work of a different scale. There are operas which are short and for 10 people at a time.”

It is familiar territory for van Tuinen, who was the co-founder and artistic director of the experimental WA company Lost and Found Opera, which specialised in performing lost operas in found site specific places. Now he is at the helm of a larger ship, with problems that require immense creativity to solve. Fortunately the company has found itself in relative financial stability, which means the creative opportunities are possible.

Fiscal good fortune

“We’re doing OK because our government and corporate partners have at this time stood by the company and indicated their support. Everyone has reached out and said we understand what you are going through and you can lean on us.”

The WA Opera staff team of nine remain employed full-time and the company is endeavouring to honour the work done by freelance artists.

“Where possible we have come to arrangements with artists which acknowledges the work they have put in up till certain seasons. It’s all in confidence and varies production-to-production and artist-to-artist but WAO has been very keen – and had terrific support from our board – to make sure where freelance artists have done preparatory work for upcoming seasons that it is acknowledged and we don’t just blindly rely on the force majeure clause.”

Future planning is still impossible so van Tuinen is preparing for every scenario, juggling multiple realities with 18 different potential performances on his hands.

He is grateful for the ongoing support of the community and is looking forward to the day when audiences can be in the same room as performers.

“We’ve seen a huge outpouring of love and support from our audiences. If people are wanting to support us they can sign up to our programs, send us messages, support the company financially, non-financially, emotionally, spiritually. And they can make a commitment to stick by us through what’s going on and be ready to be launch back into the same room that we’re in when we are allowed to.”

Pictured top: Thousands of people flocked to the Opera in the Park performance of Hansel and Gretel in February, the last performance by the West Australian Opera.

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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